Momentum in a sports game is pretty difficult to measure. Understandably, I get why people often write it off as imaginary.
In the words of Ron Burgundy, it’s science.
It’s a simple by-product of universal entropic systems.
That momentum plays out on a sports field shouldn’t really be all that surprising, and yet intelligent people will often assume it’s a bunch of hot air.
It’s hard to explain momentum unless you look at sports the way you’d look at the universe. Which you should. All this plays out in the same realm — sports, life, main-sequence star fusion, etc.
The universe, among other things, is entropic.
Entropy is the universal tendency of things to move towards greater states of chaos. It’s not too hard to find evidence of that everywhere. From the hair on your head to your room upstairs, things just get messy.
It’s the way of the world.
Sports are also entropic. They tend to progress towards greater chaotic states.
The start of a game – very much like the start of a universe – is incredibly compact, neat and tidy. The score is 0-0 and everything is waiting to rapidly expand and fill space, box scores, stat sheets and human consciousness.
Over the next 48-60 minutes (depending), this neat and tidy package will unravel and progress towards a messy, often complicated ending. That’s just the way of sports. It’s also the way of the world.
So here’s where momentum comes in. If we treat sports the way we should – as a microcosmic entropic system of the universe – then we have to account for higher levels of organization.
According to entropy, the higher the level of organization, the greater the chance of it becoming disorganized.
For example, if your desk is perfectly organized, it has a massive chance of becoming disorganized, simply because there’s no room for greater order and plenty of room for infinite chaos.
It’s the same with sports. Things that are incredibly organized have an incredibly small chance of becoming more organized. They have a greater chance, however, of falling apart.
That’s what momentum is. It’s the righting of this system.
(Before we go any further, it’s important to note that in order for this to work, teams must be of relatively equal talent. There is nothing that can account for bad competition)
Look at the Patriots/Broncos game a week ago — Denver went up 24-0, in large part thanks to fumbles they recovered and capitalized on.
Good fortune, execution, game-plans, coaching, etc — that all led to an incredibly high state of organization for Denver.
Bill Barnwell talks about “momentum” here (as an imaginary trend). He doesn’t believe in it, but brings up an interesting point — if a team goes into halftime (like the Broncos) up 24-0, how does the momentum just disappear? How does New England answer with 21 straight points?
Well, the answer is the momentum in that game didn’t dissipate in the 2nd half. Instead, it naturally shifted because the Broncos had all the “momentum” (which is really just another word for organization).
At the start of the third quarter, 24-0 is probably about as organized as the state-of-Bronco-football could have hoped for against a Patriots team that wasn’t all that mismatched in terms of talent.
That high state of organization simply meant that Denver’s chances of unraveling were that much greater. And, vice versa — the Patriots had a greater chance of getting it together, recovering fumbles, executing better, etc.
Momentum will almost always shift (again, assuming the teams are of equal talent) because a team that is winning is almost always in a higher state of organization and in entropic systems, the higher the level of organization means the greater the chance of becoming disorganized.
It sounds silly, but this happens all the time in balanced systems because such is universal law.
You reach a certain point and you’re not going to get any luckier or more fortunate or more organized — things are going to fall apart and that distribution of “momentum” is going back the other way.
Teams even account for this.“They’ll make a run. We need to be ready.” Remember the 49ers-Ravens game last Super Bowl?
People will tend to overlook all of this and attribute it to law of averages, or regression to the mean.
But regression to the mean and law of averages can’t account for blips, flukes, or single random events.
Momentum can occur as an instantaneous action (think Ray Allen’s 3 in last years finals) and regression to the mean simply just doesn’t have the temporal ability to unfold.
Also, regression to the mean is heavily based in statistics, i.e. shooting 80% on 3PG and “regressing” to 35%. Sports games, obviously, aren’t just about statistics, either.So regression to the mean is a pretty narrow way to read into momentum (and this article).
Momentum is a medium through which regression to the mean can play out, sure, but it’s not limited to being defined as such.
Also, in the midst of all this scientific jargon, it’s important to acknowledge that momentum is something we all can absolutely feel. It’s not simply just a bunch of entropic hot air, either.
For vested spectators, it’s the feeling of dread or elation as these tides of energy shift.
If you’re watching from a neutral perspective, it’s the games’ perspective warping and shifting.
A team that could do no wrong suddenly can’t do right. A single shot erases everything that preceded it — you thought you knew, yet in the face of the present moment, you have no idea.
In that Spurs/Heat game, there seemed to be no way around it — the Spurs were better. And then Ray Allen’s shot dropped and the world was turned upside down.
That’s what momentum is.
All it does is play out in a universal system of entropic chaos and balance.
So, it’s probably unfair to term momentum imaginary.
It might not be “real” in the way we presently describe it in everyday life.
But it’s real nonetheless.